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by request/blu-ray series # 22: i saw the devil (jee-woon kim, 2010)

(This was recommended by Kasey, and was a birthday gift from Sue and Paul.)

Another film in my continuing education in recent Korean cinema. It’s my first Jee-woon Kim movie, as well as my first movie with Byung-hun Lee. Min-sik Choi was also in the excellent Oldboy. I’m starting to recognize some of these actors (Choi is hard to miss, and he’s terrific ... Doona Bae is in the new series Sense8, and she looked familiar to me, so I looked her up and saw she was in The Host). When I buried myself in Hong Kong movies back in the day, one of the best parts was seeing the top stars turn up in multiple movies, and I’ve got a lot of Korean films on my to-see list, so perhaps this will happen again.

I tend to question my wife’s love of the TV show Criminal Minds, which deals with serial killers. It seems from my outsider’s perspective to be a sick show that spends a lot of time showing women being tortured. Well, as long as I watch movies like I Saw the Devil, I have no room to talk. It’s like an episode of Criminal Minds, if it was rated X and the heroes became as sick as the villains. It’s even worse than that sounds. An accurate description comes from one of the film’s taglines: “He’s not getting even. He’s just getting started.” When the hero catches the villain, the movie still has an hour or so to go, and you may find yourself wondering what might fill the remaining time. Without giving away too many spoilers, let’s just say the second half of that tagline is a big hint.

There may be some redeeming social commentary here. The old “to defeat a monster, you must become a monster” angle is well-represented. There isn’t a lot of class context ... the victims are women, but the extreme violence is often directed towards men. There’s cannibalism, but I think it’s there for comic relief, believe it or not. The cinematography and editing and acting are all top-notch, which makes it all the more disturbing.

Min-sik Choi is so good as the villain, and his character is so evil, that you can’t help but root for the hero, not only to solve the crimes and stop the bad guy, but to extract some measure of revenge. Which, of course, implicates the audience in actions as evil as those of the bad guy.

You should know now whether you’ll like I Saw the Devil. It goes far enough to discourage many viewers, and I understand this ... there are movies I won’t see, too. If you can stomach it, though, this is very well done. Oldboy remains my favorite Korean film, though, with Mother in second place. 7/10.

music friday: gerry goffin

Still playing around with Apple Music. This is from a Rolling Stone playlist titled “Co-Written by Gerry Goffin”.

The Byrds, “Goin’ Back”.

Diana Ross, “Theme from Mahogany (Do You Know Where You’re Going To)”.

Grizzly Bear, “He Hit Me (And It Felt Like a Kiss)”.

The Hollies, “Yes I Will”.

Little Eva, “The Loco-Motion”.

Billy Joel, “Hey Girl”.

The Cookies, “Chains”.

The Drifters, “Up on the Roof”.

Aretha Franklin, “(You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman”.

Whitney Houston, “Saving All My Love for You”.

Here is the Apple Music playlist, with 8 extra tracks:

[Edited to add Spotify playlist]

by request: casualties of war (brian de palma, 1989)

The “request” comes from the Facebook Fave Fifty three of us did back in 2011. Phil Dellio had this one at #38. He wrote quite a bit about Kael’s review of the film ... she liked it, too. Of course, De Palma was one of her favorites. He also noted that “De Palma’s treatment of the girl is humane and shattering beyond words.” He mentions this in the context of someone who had said this was another “kill the bitch” film from De Palma. I think people’s preconceptions get in the way ... if you’ve decided in advance that De Palma is incapable of the humane treatment of women characters, then there’s nothing that will change your mind. I think this also works against Michael J. Fox in this movie ... too many people couldn’t get past Alex Keaton. Fox was, in fact, perfectly cast: fresh behind the ears kid who barely looks old enough to shave, thrust into the jungles of Vietnam. And he is great in the role.

I don’t know if I can say the same about Sean Penn. Phil tiptoes around the topic: “Penn gives a highly stylized performance that you may recoil from”. (Kael calls it a “theatrical, heated-up performance”.) Penn certainly grabs our attention, but I often felt what grabbed me was Sean Penn, not Sgt. Meserve. As a contrast with Fox’s more restrained performance, it works. It works so well, in fact, that I’m surprised there were no Oscar noms ... it’s the kind of over-acting the Academy often rewards.

As for the rape at the center of the film, De Palma does indeed treat the woman with sympathy. But I can’t escape the feeling that what the most important casualty of that act was Fox’s Eriksson. We can be thankful that De Palma doesn’t rub our faces in the details of the rape ... he gets the point across via actions that are largely off-screen, an example of the respect he gives to the woman. But this means the focus during the rape is on Eriksson, and the woman’s traumas are in part there to emphasize how traumatized Eriksson is.

I may be asking for too much, though, because even if Fox and Penn are the keys to the film, De Palma’s attitude towards the woman matters in a positive sense.

The end of the film is pretty bad. This is not a movie that was asking for a happy ending. In fact, given the failure of the end, I question the need for the framing device at all.

I don’t know where I stand on the continuum of De Palma’s fans and critics. I think Casualties of War is as good as my other De Palma favorites, Dressed to Kill and The Untouchables, and there are plenty of other De Palmas that I like, not just more universally liked movies like Blow Out, but also more disreputable films like The Fury and Femme Fatale. But he has also made some duds (hello, Black Dahlia), and I don’t think he has ever made a great movie. None of which should detract from the achievement that is Casualties of War. 8/10.

a few more thoughts about the third man

A few years ago, when a group of us ran a series on our fifty favorite movies, I had The Third Man at #5. I wrote:

I’d like to say that The Third Man is a perfect movie. While the elements were always there, it wasn’t an easy path towards perfection. American producer David O. Selznick had his own ideas about how the movie should play, and he managed to create a version of the film for the U.S. market that had a revised introduction and ten minutes excised to make Joseph Cotten’s Holly Martins a more sympathetic character. Filming on location in Vienna wasn’t easy, so soon after the war. Director Carol Reed created what was essentially a British neo-realism, albeit with baroque camera angles. The film was perfectly cast, from Cotten as the clueless American, forcing his way into every situation, to Alida Valli as Harry Lime’s lover, to Trevor Howard as the stiff, intelligent British major. And Orson Welles, who takes up a large part of our memory of the film, even though he doesn’t make an appearance until the film is more than halfway finished, and even though his screen time is limited.

Graham Greene’s script was up to his usual high standards, and the cinematographer, Robert Krasker, won an Oscar for his contributions to the film’s unique look. Finally, there is the instantly identifiable zither music of Anton Karas, so entwined in the film and in our memories that to this day, when you hear a zither, you think of The Third Man.

Yes, I’d like to say it’s a perfect movie. But then there was the time somebody I follow on Twitter said that he’d finally seen The Third Man for the first time, and WHY DIDN’T ANYONE WARN HIM ABOUT THE ZITHER. Apparently, that was a deal breaker … for him, The Third Man was not perfect.

And so I’ll lower my praise just a touch, in honor of that zither-hating viewer. But near-perfection is a wonderful thing. The British Film Institute named The Third Man the best British film ever; it’s the highest-ranked British film on my own list. Its vision of post-war corruption is unsparing, the film’s style is noteworthy … I want to say that word “perfect” again.

Plus, I can’t quit talking about Orson Welles. Welles plays a character, Harry Lime, as lacking in ethics as any character you’ll come across. Little children die because of Lime’s actions. But Welles’ charisma in the role is such that a radio show, The Lives of Harry Lime, was created. This told the story of Lime in the years before The Third Man, and while Lime is a con artist in the series, he is nowhere close to the evil presence of the film.

When Criterion released The Third Man on Blu-ray, I made it my first-ever Blu-ray purchase. It looked and sounded great. But what we have now is a new 4K restoration, and I don’t know much about technology, but I understand that the resolution is greatly increased. Not everyone thinks this is a good thing ... the better the quality of digital restoration, the less likely it is to look like celluloid. All I can say is that I found the restored version to be quite beautiful on the big screen.

The Third Man is one of those movies where I don’t know what to write, because it feels like it has all been said. Then again, people still write dissertations on Shakespeare, so there must be something new under the sun. I know that when I write about The Third Man, I’m assuming that everyone knows everything that has come before. So there is no trivia I can use to surprise, no angle that hasn’t been considered in depth (pun not intended). I was the big Welles fan in our Fave Fifty group ... as I recall, no one else had any movies Welles directed on their list, while I had two. But I ranked The Third Man higher than either Citizen Kane or Touch of Evil ... does that mean I think The Third Man is Welles’ greatest film? No, because it’s not “his” film. His participation was apparently even less than it might seem ... he spent a week or so on the film, wasn’t involved in most of the things we think of as “The Third Man” (like script or cinematography etc.). He played a memorable character and wrote a small part of Lime’s dialogue. (I was fascinated to find out that one Welles contribution was Harry’s stomach problems.) But ... and here, Welles can thank Carol Reed and the rest of the team ... Harry Lime was indeed memorable. Welles made him more so, but Graham Greene deserves most of the credit for that. Also the construction of the film, which kept Harry off screen for so long, resulted in one of the great first appearances in movie history, and while Welles made the most of it, the reason it is iconic is the setup and payoff ... the kitty cat was almost as important as Welles, and the shots of Lime were brilliant. The scene in the ferris wheel is justly famous ... both Welles and Cotten play if perfectly, the setting, simultaneously claustrophobic and expansive, is just as good, and, yes, Harry’s dialogue is perfect, too. And everyone remembers the part about the cuckoo clock, which was written by Welles. Orson Welles is one of the reasons The Third Man is as great as it is. But his contribution is not enough to call this an Orson Welles movie.

But what a performance! There’s a brief moment I love, when Harry and Holly are in the ferris wheel, and as they talk, Harry idly runs his finger on the window, leaving a mark in the built-up moisture. It’s a heart, and the word “Anna”. I want to know who’s idea that was. It doesn’t appear in the book, but that’s not much help ... the book is full of dialogue, it reads like the movie treatment it was. I want to think it was Welles’ idea. Not sure why it matters to me.

I keep going back to that radio show. It’s almost an affront, that it even exists, turning an evil person into a charming rapscallion. But The Third Man leaves you hungry for more Harry, or at least, more Welles-as-Harry. The 52 episodes are trifles, although any radio show with Welles is a pleasure to listen to ... he was a wonderful radio actor. Perhaps The Lives of Harry Lime exists to show us how Holly and Anna felt love for Harry. Because the Harry Lime of the radio series is rather lovable.

One last thing. In Greene’s treatment/novella, Holly and Harry are English. It might have been the smartest move of all to change Holly’s background to American. It adds the subtext of the clueless American, barging around, drinking too much too ostentatiously, never understanding what is right in front of him because what really happens is under the surface. Admittedly, I’m not sure how this applies to Harry Lime.

what i watched last week

In Bruges (Martin McDonagh, 2008). I saw McDonagh’s Oscar-winning short, Six Shooter, and was unimpressed in the 5/10 range. I saw his most recent feature, Seven Psychopaths, and again was inspired to give 5/10. So I wasn’t expecting much from this, his feature directorial debut. But I was pleasantly surprised. It still felt like a less ambitious Tarantino knock-off, but the limited number of main characters helped rein in some of the excess, Brendan Gleeson was quite good, Colin Farrell seemed human, and Ralph Fiennes was effective. The story of hit men hiding out in Bruges was derivative, with the possible exception of the setting. But Gleeson especially made me care, certainly more than I had cared about the other McDonagh characters I’d come across in other films. #583 on the They Shoot Pictures, Don’t They list of the top 1000 films of the 21st century. 7/10.

Blazing Saddles (Mel Brooks, 1974). It’s possible that Mel Brooks is among the first directors of comedies to produce the kind of works I just don’t get. Like so many modern comedies, Blazing Saddles has enough funny jokes to fill a good preview trailer, and a couple of bits that people love to look back on with laughing fondness. But that’s it. The opening credits with Frankie Laine are promising. Gene Wilder is interesting, if not actually funny. Madeline Kahn nails her Marlene Dietrich number, but is otherwise wasted. The bean-eating scene is truly classic, and the grand finale is overdone but fun. But I’ve just described ten, maybe fifteen minutes, which leaves more than an hour of unfunny. There is a way to make a good movie in this style ... Zucker/Abrahams/Zucker did it with Airplane!, the early Police Squad/Naked Guns, and Top Secret!. Partly they flip the ratio ... there are more funny parts than not funny. With Blazing Saddles, you see the preview, you’ve pretty much seen the good stuff. But movies like Top Secret! reward multiple viewings, because so much is stuffed into the film. Much of this involves taste preferences. I am aware of this. Top Secret! is my favorite ZAZ production, because it is so funny and non-stop, but Zucker has said that while Top Secret! is funny, “it really isn’t a good movie.” I am largely unimpressed by comedies that can be reduced to a three-minute trailer and a couple of friends laughing about how good it is. 4/10. For an example of my idea of great comedy (besides just watching Buster Keaton silents), listen to the Firesign Theatre, beginning with How Can You Be in Two Places at Once When You’re Not Anywhere at All (featuring the first appearance of Nick Danger) and Don’t Crush That Dwarf, Hand Me the Pliers, plus maybe my favorite of the later years, Everything You Know Is Wrong.

Burden of Dreams (Les Blank, 1982). I thought it might be fun to watch this documentary on the making of Fitzcarraldo, after seeing that movie a couple of weeks ago. I was critical of Fitzcarraldo, partly because it was admittedly “not my cup of tea”, but also because I wondered “what was it like to pretend to be slave labor in the movie, when ‘pretend’ meant to actually do the labor?” As illuminating as Burden of Dreams is about the mind of Werner Herzog, I didn’t see anything that improved my opinion of Herzog’s film. Herzog verbalizes his ideas, his dreams, and his relationship to the jungle is especially interesting. But no matter how Herzog sees it, when I watch either of these movies, I see him exploiting the locals, because he thinks his commitment to his art should be shared by the people who might die for that art. I liked Burden of Dreams more than I liked Fitzcarraldo ... Herzog is ultimately more interesting than the character he created. But I still think a viewer would be better off watching Aguirre: the Wrath of God. 7/10.

music friday: 1983

New Order, “Blue Monday. How does it feel to treat me like you do?

Eurythmics, “Sweet Dreams (Are Made of This)”. Who am I to disagree?

Grandmaster Flash and Melle Mel, “White Lines (Don’t Don’t Do It)”. Tell all your friends, they can go my way.

Cyndi Lauper, “Time After Time”. Secrets stolen from deep inside.

U2, “New Year’s Day”. Under a blood red sky.

Run-D.M.C., “It’s Like That”. Whatever happened to unity?

Talking Heads, “Burning Down the House”. I’m an ordinary guy.

Shannon, “Let the Music Play”. What does love want me to do?

Lionel Richie, “All Night Long (All Night)”. Let the music play on.

Violent Femmes, “Kiss Off”. You can all just kiss off into the air.

[Edited to add Spotify playlist]

bruce bochy, a book of walks

While the title may sound like a look at one aspect of baseball from an honored manager, in fact “walks” refers to the basic act of walking. Each short chapter describes a different walk, from walking the dog, to Milwaukee and Arizona and Ohio and Central Park and Chicago, and around San Francisco, to Coit Tower and the Golden Gate Bridge.

The writing is conversational. No ghostwriter is listed ... Steve Kettmann writes the intro, I suppose he might have had a hand in things. It’s entirely possible Bochy wrote it all, and whatever the process, you get the feeling of a real person, “Bruce Bochy”, on the pages, and this adds to the pleasure the book brings.

It’s a slight book by design. You learn about one side of Bruce Bochy, and you get some nice little travelogues of neighborhoods he walks. It may just be me placing people into boxes, but it’s not the kind of book I’d expect from a baseball manager. But then, Bochy isn’t just any manager.

The last paragraph of the book encapsulates its charms. The final chapter is devoted to his “Everest”, a long walk from AT&T Park to the Golden Gate Bridge. It concludes:

That’s a walk I recommend to everyone. If you need to move along at a pretty deliberate pace and stop often to rest, so what. Take the whole day! Make an adventure out of it. Whether you’re a visitor to our city, or you’ve lived here your whole life, that’s a walk that will make you feel good. It will make you feel alive. It will make you feel more like yourself. After that, every time you see a picture of the Golden Gate Bridge or you see it in a movie or out the window of the flight taking you somewhere else, you can kind of smile and remember what it felt l like walking those last steps and being there at the foot of the bridge. I had a feeling I just wanted to walk to the Golden Gate. I thought it would be pretty cool. You know what? It was. It was very, very cool.

penny dreadful, season two finale

I don’t know if I can get the essence of Penny Dreadful into just one word. Excessive? Loony? Dreadful, in a good way? There is a kitchen sink feel to it all, as if creator John Logan had a bazillion ideas and wanted to squeeze them all in. Just looking at the characters reveals this. There’s Dorian Gray, Dr. Frankenstein, his monster, the monster’s bride ... there’s “Ethan” Lawrence Talbot, who is (hard to tell) either The Wolfman, his dad, or maybe his grandfather. There’s Mina Harker, and Doctor Van Helsing. Meanwhile, the apparent main characters, played by Eva Green and Timothy Dalton, are original to the series. (Off the top of my head, I can’t recall another show with both a James Bond and a Bond girl ... given that Logan writes 007 movies ... well, my head is going to explode.)

You get the feeling Logan has no intention of limiting himself. Religion matters, in a good-vs.-evil way, and Eva Green’s Vanessa takes a very personal road, believing in God but using her powers (demonic?) to the point where, knowing “who she is”, she rejects at least the symbols of God. The show’s presentation is voluptuous, full of gorgeous settings and moody music and supernatural happenings ... this is not a show that looks cheap. While Logan has a long tale to tell, he isn’t afraid of jumping this way and that for the sake of a good scene, so continuity isn’t always immaculate. Hey, you know what you’re getting from a show called “Penny Dreadful,” right?

There is some wonderful acting going on. Rory Kinnear’s take on the Monster is both frightening and heartrending, as it always is when the script allows and the actor is up to the challenge (i.e., The Bride of Frankenstein). Many of the others look their parts, which is half the job on this show. When you see Reeve Carney, you can believe he’s Dorian Gray before he has actually done anything. The same goes for Josh Hartnett as the token American.

But this is Eva Green’s show. Emmys aren’t given to the likes of Penny Dreadful, so Green is likely to join her Showtime stable mate Emmy Rossum as an actress doing terrific work without being noticed come Emmy time (pun intended, as always, re: Rossum). Green is totally fearless as Vanessa Ives. Her acting goes from quietly pensive to over-the-top, depending on what the scene requires. It’s in her over-the-top scenes that she really shines. It’s not too much, because it’s closely attached to the show’s overall tone ... she fits right in. Penny Dreadful would be an interesting show without her, but I doubt I’d be writing about it.

(I can’t talk about Green’s Vanessa without noting how much she reminds me of the great Barbara Steele, another dark-haired, odd-looking beauty who had the ability to grab a scene by the throat.)

Perhaps the most representative Penny Dreadful scene came in the finale. Dr. Frankenstein interrupts Dorian Gray and Mrs. Monster as they dance in a large ballroom in Gray’s mansion. First he shoots the monster, but it has no effect ... he doesn’t yet grasp what he has created. He then shoots Gray, but of course, he can’t die. After getting a picture of his future from his creation, Frankenstein leaves, and Gray and the Bride continue with their dance. They are dressed in white ... as they dance, a pool of their blood forms on the floor, while their clothes are increasingly soaked, as well. It makes no sense ... there is more blood than would have occurred if they were ordinary humans, and as near-immortals who cure themselves, they aren’t likely to bleed much, anyway. But the imagery is so extravagant, so soaked with atmosphere as well as blood, and Logan isn’t about to let a little nonsense stop him from giving us such decadent beauty.

But who am I kidding? For a scene to be representative of Penny Dreadful, you need Vanessa.

Grade for Season Finale: A. Grade for first two seasons: A-.

what i watched last week

Fish Tank (Andrea Arnold, 2009). Coming-of-age, kitchen-sink, neo-Dogme film about Mia, a 15-year-old lower-class girl in London. She’s a loner, doesn’t get along with her mother or sister, and fashions herself a hip-hop dancer. She is played by Katie Jarvis, who had never acted before, and in this case, her amateurism works for the film. She is completely believable as the outcast. Nothing much happens, although the film has a slightly ominous tone, as if we’re watching the calm before the storm. Eventually, she has sex with her mother’s boyfriend Conor (Michael Fassbender), a scene that is both as matter-of-fact as most of the movie and the quiet storm that finally breaks the calm. Despite the melodramatic turn, Fish Tank remains “realistic”. But then Mia effectively kidnaps Conor’s daughter, and I guess we’re supposed to see how events have pushed the outcast over the edge, but it plays out of character for the person we’ve come to know ... I didn’t believe for a second that Mia would do this, and the movie fell apart for me. It was good enough before that, and ultimately, I liked it. I also confess that the accents seemed particularly thick to me ... I even turned on subtitles for awhile. #377 on the They Shoot Pictures, Don’t They list of the top 1000 films of the 21st century. 7/10.

Love & Money (Bill Pohlad, 2014). 8/10.

by request: love & mercy (bill pohlad, 2014)

(Part of the semi-regular movie-and-dinner thing between my wife, sister, brother-in-law, and yours truly. This was my sister’s pick.)

Love & Mercy reminded me of what I loved about The Beach Boys music, which isn’t an easy task. They were all over the part of my life that went from their debut album through “Heroes and Villains” in 1967. (I was 9-14 in those years.) They seemed pretty irrelevant after that, and it became easy to dismiss many of their early hits. They don’t seem to have the cred of a Creedence Clearwater Revival, another hit machine but one whose songs still resonate. It’s not that I decided The Beach Boys sucked ... not as long as “Don’t Worry Baby” was out there. But I forgot about them.

Love & Mercy wants us to know that Brian Wilson was/is a genius, flawed, “crazy”, beaten down by vicious dysfunctional relationships, but still a genius. And you know, I’m willing to accept that on the basis of “Good Vibrations” alone. But his genius reputation comes in large part from the album he never finished. That’s not quite fair ... if anything, the reputation of Pet Sounds has grown even larger over the years. All of the band’s post-Pet Sounds releases were disappointments at best, and the best of Brian’s solo work came in 2004 when he finally released a version of SMiLE. Thus, Love & Mercy gives us Brian the Genius during that time when, genius or not, his released output wasn’t up to snuff. (When Mike Love tells Brian the band needs to get back to making Beach Boys songs, i.e. hits, he seems crass in the face of genius, but you certainly understand his point.)

So, Love & Mercy isn’t about The Beach Boys of Endless Summer, the 1974 best-of that featured pre-Pet Sounds songs and sold a zillion copies. It’s about a troubled musical genius named Brian Wilson confronting his greatest musical frustration. He just happens to also be a Beach Boy.

And it’s pretty good. It’s true that Brian Wilson adds a level of interest, that all of the famous characters are fun to see, but in the end, this is just a standard tale of a troubled genius. I can’t decide, but the movie might have worked just as well if it was a fictional story about Joe Blow.

The two actors who play Wilson, Paul Dano and John Cusack, are both good, and they seem like the same person even though they don’t look much alike. Paul Giamatti probably thinks he’ll get an Oscar nom for Supporting Actor, and he might even deserve it, although the character is written in such a way that Giamatti had little choice but to play it over the top. Elizabeth Banks does what she can with the role of the goddess who saved Brian’s life ... again, she’s very good, but the part is pretty standard.

This sounds like I’m damning with faint praise, and I don’t intend that. It may be standard, but it’s good standard, and, to be honest with myself, it is better because Brian Wilson is the focus. 8/10.